It looks like everyone in parliament agrees. The four biggest parties have all recently spoken about the need to reduce immigration. Specifically, it has come up in response to problems of unemployment and unaffordable housing. It seems all politicians agree- immigration policy holds the key to these social issues.
But politicians have a little secret… this is all bullshit.
Immigration is not a central cause of unemployment, and not the key driver of the explosion in housing prices. Even dramatic reductions in immigration numbers will have little impact.
What drives housing prices and unemployment.
It is a simple logic. Not enough jobs and houses to go around- cut immigration until there is. Problem solved?
Well, no. Not at all in fact. This simple formula misses how these problems formed and what is driving them.
Take housing. Historically, NZ had a high level of home ownership, as well as a strong state home sector. In practice, housing was a right, and even the poor largely had access to safe, if modest homes. What changed? A range of things. Decreasing wages since the 80’s made home ownership less and less affordable for many working people, and for the wealthy as the pool of renters increased, the returns on investment properties increased. As more and more investment money became available, housing prices steadily increased. All these factors were there when NZ had more people leaving than immigrants coming in, so cutting off the immigrant flow now will do nothing to touch these deeper dynamics.
Immigration looks similar. For decades, full employment was a government policy. Government economic policy was structured around making sure that there was a job for everyone who needed one, and they were largely successful. Again, this changed in the late 70’s and 80’s. Instead of trying to eradicate unemployment, government policy changed to accept some unemployment as a reality. So cutting off immigration isn’t going to create new jobs, or change the gears of the economy to put people first. Even if unemployment dropped temporarily, it would soon return.
So why do pollies play the immigration card if it’s not getting to the root of the problems? To understand this, it helps to understand the pressures that they are under.
Politicians- they’re laughing at you.
The Politicians dilemma.
To be a good politician you need to do two things.
Firstly, you need to come up with a set of messages and policies that appeal to the electorate. A politician need to be able to make a case for themselves as a candidate that can convince as many people as possible to vote for them. They need to look like a better and more credible option than the others.
The less obvious challenge is just as important. A politician needs the resources to get their message out. They need money to pay for staff and professional advertising. TV, Radio advertisements, leaflets for letterboxing, gear for volunteers to use, websites and databases. It doesn’t come cheap. Even the most charismatic and inspirational politician needs some sort of resources, or at least will need resources in comparison to their opponents.
For mainstream politicians and political parties this creates a dilemma. On one hand you need to pander to ‘the people’, on the other to your potential financial backers. The two are not the same.
If you look just at polling data- the biggest issues concerning New Zealanders are poverty/inequality and housing. Logically, the road to political success would be for politicians who can articulate a solution to these problems. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
The government policies that cause the housing crisis and inequality turn out to be very profitable for those with lots of money. For example, more than a third of the 2016 Rich List members have investments in property, real estate or development. Housing prices are largely being driven up by these investors seeking strong financial returns. These same investors are the same people who can fund- or not fund- a politician’s campaign.
Even if a politician found other avenues of funding, it doesn’t fix the problem. These big investors might pour resources into opponents.
Whats all this got to do with immigration?
Turning immigration into a political issue actually creates a useful center point between these two poles. Blaming immigration gives politicians a card to play to pander to people legitimately concerned about economic issues. To many, it doesn’t matter that immigrants aren’t the cause- when so many politicians repeat the same lines, can seem like a credible solution.
And for investors, at worst this keeps the Auckland housing money flowing. At best, constraints on richer immigrants might undercut a potential rival in the business of property investing.
It’s an easy system. It doesn’t matter if it’s based on lies. It doesn’t matter if it drives racist myths that lead to serious problems for migrant communities. It keeps the wheels turning until the next election, and for career politicians, that’s all that matters.
Is there any room for optimism?
How can there be any room for hope when politicians are caught in this dynamic that leads them to such cheap lies?
The answer is simple- we shouldn’t have hope in conventional politics. If politics is left up to professionals and big funders, then they will always be caught in these tensions. No matter how principled the politico in the middle, the same pressures will leave their mark.
But it doesn’t need to be this way, and rejecting politics as usual can create the space for a real alternative.
An alternative can’t be built purely by charismatic politicians, we need strong organisations of ordinary people.
This is why organisations like unions are so important. It shows an organisational model that can build a power that can counteract the corruption of big money. Mass memberships can collect resources, and when people come together in strong, participatory, democratic organisations they can generate more power than we even can by ourselves.
Unfortunately, this can never be done while people are divided against migrant communities. Next time a politician tries to say they way we will fix housing/education/healthcare is by cracking down on immigration- remember that person is a liar. That politician thinks that you’re gullible and will believe anything. And that politician believes that a millionaire’s money is worth more than responding to your needs.
Organise, and show them they are wrong.
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